Deciding to Walk the Camino de Santiago?

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2018 is full of goodness for all of us and hopefully lots of great hikes too.  😀

It’s very early January and even though I am still finishing off the Christmas chocolates, I am looking at the year ahead and wondering what it will bring. I’m lucky to have good health so looking ahead is something that brings hope to my heart. I have options. There are possibilities. I have everything to play for.

What lies ahead?

Between you and me, I’ve been reflecting a lot on when to walk another camino.

Like countless pilgrims before me, I thought it would be enough to walk 500 miles across Spain just the once. I thought I’d “do it” and get it out of my system. I never imagined that I would want to walk again – that is, until I came home and began to reflect on the enormity of my experience. Very quickly, I realized I wanted to walk several more camino journeys in my lifetime. I even had a sense of my next route and when I would walk it but I didn’t make any commitments. I wanted to keep the planning loose until I was sure of the timing. There are lots of things to consider, like the cost, the time it takes, and the preparation it takes for a successful walk. Still, I reflected on when is a good time to walk and how to make that decision, and I wrote a little about it here.

Since then, I’m still reflecting and still trying to figure out the timing for my next journey.

Things are different now. Unlike last time round, I am not in a position to quit my job and walk away from family for 6+ weeks any more. I’m also not really in a position to bring family walking the trail *with* me either.

I know my circumstances will change and I won’t always face these hurdles so I’m not very worried about the timing just now. I just have to be patient and trust that it will come together.

But all this wondering and waiting is a curious thing. I feel my way through a lot of my big decisions and my last camino (and next one!) are no different. But  I wonder how everyone else arrives at the choice to walk camino.

Did you feel called? Was it the answer to a prayer or a heart’s desire?

Did you mentally commit to a year and a route, and then forge your life around making the plans work?

Maybe you suddenly needed a time-out and camino seemed as good a place as any to go think and “be”?

Was it a whim? Were you in Europe with a bit of free time and just decided to go check it out?

Or was it a dream you nursed for twenty years until finally the obstacles fell away?

I know that thousands of people overcome all sorts of obstacles to embark on a camino journey. People with lives far more complex than mine can make it happen. Either life bends to their will or they make it bend for them. Whatever the case, they live colorful, meaningful lives and stay connected to what has meaning and heart.

So, I’m curious. I want to know how to make it all work.

How did you come to your choice to walk camino? What were your obstacles and how did you overcome them? And what would you say to someone thinking about walking but unsure about how to start?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! 🙂

 

 

The Secret to Happiness

I don’t know if people say this very often but here, let me say it:

Walking the Camino de Santiago wasn’t always a barrel of laughs.

A lot of the time, it felt like a tough grind from one dusty day to the next. Am I a bad sport for saying that? I don’t know. I walked and walked and walked, and I wasn’t always sure that there was a point to my efforts. My body hurt in a gazillion different places and I was upset by the competitive race for everything….beds, wi-fi, even a free spot on a clothesline. Maybe I was ‘doing it‘ wrong but I found it immensely physical to walk 500 miles in less than six weeks. I found it emotionally taxing, too. I met pilgrims who swooned about feeling immense joy. Often, I felt I couldn’t relate to their fervent excitement.

But the day I walked from San Bol to Boadilla del Camino (I know, I know, quit talking about this one day already!) I had real, emotional breakthroughs. Yes, I learned to follow my own impulse instead of following anyone else’s pace. And yes, I learned that my social circle needed some heavy pruning. But I also learned something I had forgotten: I learned the secret to happiness.

At this stage in the journey, I’d already been walking for about three weeks. That was long enough to have experienced some rain, some frustration, and lots of tears. It was also long enough to have experienced some solid connection and tender kindness. Walking through the Meseta gave me a chance to put these things in some sort of order. I think the flat, open landscape was so under-stimulating that my mind had a chance to do some internal processing. As I walked, I found myself giving thanks for…well, everything.

I gave thanks for the new, lightweight shoes that were just *so* comfortable compared to my hiking sandals.

And I gave thanks for the fact that I didn’t have any blisters.

I gave thanks for the Factor 50 sunscreen that was protecting my skin from going lobster red.

And I gave thanks for my healthy body that somehow carried me from place to place.

Hour after hour, I ran through lists of things for which I was thankful. I gave thanks for everything I could think of, from my sunglasses to my healthy knees. I gave thanks for every hot shower along the way. I gave thanks for all the coffee, all the clean bedding, all the yellow arrows that pointed me in the right direction. I gave thanks for having the health and finances and impulse to go walk camino. Millions of people would never know that triage of good luck in their life: I was very blessed to have it in mine.

By now you’re thinking: What, that’s it? That’s your big, ‘A-Ha’ lesson? And I bet you’re thinking you’ve heard this kind of thing before. You’ve read this kind of thing before. Blah blah blah.

Right?

If you’re like me, you breeze through your day with a certain confidence about things going a certain way. There’s food in the cupboard. There’s hot water in the shower. There are clean clothes in the closet. Me? I don’t think to give thanks for these things every day, I just assume (and expect) them to be there. They are the baseline, the starting point to my day. I take them for granted.

But on camino, I didn’t have my own cupboards so I didn’t know when, or what I would eat. Similarly, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a hot shower. After all, when sharing a hostel with dozens of other people, there was always the possibility that the hot water would run out just before my turn. On camino, I couldn’t assume anything. I didn’t book my accommodation in advance so from one day to the next, I never knew where I would sleep. Other people were stressed by my lack of planning but I did it by choice: it kept me from getting complacent. And I was grateful for every single bed, regardless of its state.

I had six weeks in my own company so I noticed certain trends. There were days when I gave thanks throughout the day, dozens, if not hundreds of times. Those days were light and full of serendipity. Other days, I felt burdened by all the aches and pains. I felt burdened by disappointments. I didn’t give thanks for much and consequently, felt beaten down by both the camino and by life.

There’s a connection there. It sounds trite but really, giving thanks and literally counting my blessings made me a happier person. I felt light. I felt capable. I felt confident and playful and free.

It really was that simple. The secret to happiness? Give thanks for what you’ve got.

I say all of this because it’s relevant on two fronts:

  1. Giving thanks was a potent experience for me on camino and in my everyday life since then. Quite literally, it transforms the seemingly banal hum drum into something exquisite and profound. I can always use more of that 🙂
  2. When I left the albergue in Boadilla del Camino, I sought out the owner to say thanks to him in person. You’ll remember that he took me in even though he had no room and later, found a bed for me. He cooked a superb meal the evening before for everyone in the village…not just the pilgrims in his own hostel but the other ones too. He was the personification of a generous host. I was full of sincere and heartfelt thanks, and I wanted to say it to him before I walked off into the 6am light. The hostel was full of people putting on their boots and zipping up their packs for the day ahead. I found him in kitchen, already preparing for the day ahead. In my rudimentary Spanish I thanked him for being *such* a nice guy and for being so kind to me. And you know what he said? Of the 70 people who’d eaten his meal the previous evening, none of them had said thanks. And of all the pilgrims who’d slept on beds, sofas, and the floor, none of them had said thanks either. That morning, I was the only one who sought him out. We stood there, thanking each other.

I was glad I’d made the effort to reach out and say a nice word. But I was disappointed and saddened too. So many of my fellow pilgrims barreled through camino with a sense of entitlement. They assumed that the dinner would appear just because they were paying for it. They didn’t think of the people who spent the day planning and cooking it for them. They didn’t think to say thanks. Worryingly, they didn’t think they had to.

Walking to Santiago isn’t just about the cheap wine or the interesting people from all over the world. It isn’t life-changing if you spend your days racing for beds and being a dick to the hostel owners along the way. Everyone wants the adventure and the glory. Everyone wants the ‘A-Ha’ experience but to get it, we have to exercise a bit of kindness. Humility. Gratitude. Decency. They’re simple concepts but not always easy to put in practice. But when we do? Wow, what happiness awaits. So today, give thanks. Count your blessings. And tell someone just how much you appreciate something they’ve said/done that made your life easier. *This* is what camino is all about.

 

 

 

 

 

Camino Challenge: Preparing for Camino de Santiago

Before I walked the 500-mile Camino Francés, my good friend Jen told me “You can’t prepare for camino”. In essence, I think she was telling me that so much happens on camino (internally and externally) that you can’t possibly prepare for it all. At the time, however, I took her words a bit more literally. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks, so it suited me to hear that I couldn’t prepare because I didn’t have time to!

I didn’t do much preparation for my camino. There are pluses and minuses to that but given the circumstances in which I decided to walk, I couldn’t have planned it any better. And I wouldn’t have had the transformative experience I did have, if I’d plotted it all in advance.

But I learned that there *are* some things you can do to make things easier. And honestly, walking 500 miles is often hard, so knowing how to make your life a bit easier can be the difference between being utterly miserable, or not.

So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts on how to prepare for camino. I wonder whether you’ll agree!

  • Take some time to reflect on why you want to walk.

Doing the camino” is really popular right now and many people treat it as something on a “bucket list” that needs to be checked off. Others treat it as a physical challenge like a triathlon or marathon. Rightly or wrongly, this attitude creates a whole load of competitive thinking as people race to walk more quickly, or farther, than the people beside them. Take some time to reflect on why you’re there, or what you’d like to get from the experience – it will help you focus your attentions on your needs and your experience, and buffer you from some of the “group-think”.

  • Learn how to take care of your feet.

Really. Walking long distances every day cause the feet to swell by a shoe size or more. Go up a size when you buy your footwear. And know that one size up may not be enough – so be prepared to buy new shoes along the way if you need to.

You also need to know that two things cause blisters: moisture and friction. Do everything you can to minimise both of these things and you increase your odds of being blister-free. For the worst-case scenario, learn how to treat blisters so they don’t get infected. Blisters are not your friend so don’t invite them in the first place and don’t let them hang around!

On a related note, I didn’t realise until afterwards that carrying a backpack affects your posture. Walking long distances affects your energy levels. Bad posture and tiredness affect how you walk and how much pressure is on your feet. Tendons and ligaments get strained and swollen. Learn how to take care of your feet with ice packs, taping, massage, etc. *My* knowledge in this area was rudimentary. Next time, I’ll do my research in advance!

  • Research the weather forecast for your planned route and season – it dictates your packing list.

I say this because *I* live on a coast where wind and rain are a year-round reality. When *I* go hiking and camping, I need waterproof and windproof gear. All of my previous training in hiking and backpacking told me to bring thick wool socks, boots, a raincoat, and rain pants. However, the Spanish weather forecast told me that the route had been rain-free for weeks, so I knew the ground would be hard and dry underfoot. This meant lighter footwear, lighter socks, and less clothing.

Research the weather forecast for the time you intend to walk and for the weeks beforehand. Knowing how wet/dry it’s been can help you plan your gear.

  • Bring less “stuff” and bring more money.

“Stuff” will literally weigh you down but extra cash allows you to avail of an unscheduled dental visit, a private room when the hostel is full, or a new poncho in the unexpected thunder storm. Plus, carrying cash and cards is lighter than carrying gear!

  • The lighter your pack, the better.

Really. Lots of people obsess about the weight of their packed bag – and rightly so. I carried too much water and my pack often weighed 10kg, which was far too heavy for long distance. Choose lightweight gear, bring the bare minimum, and don’t get talked into carrying 4 litres of water, like I did!

  • Get active.

For most people, this means doing training hikes for weeks in advance but it’s not the only way to prepare the body. Unless you already walk 25km every day, you can’t prepare your body for walking 25km every day. But training hikes do help and being active in other ways still helps build physical strength – so get off the couch and get moving.

  • Learn some Spanish.

Anyone can learn 5-10 key phrases and it’s a small mark of respect to at least start a conversation in Spanish. It’s not rocket science. Don’t be the ass who insists on speaking English all the time: learn some Spanish (with a smile) and you’ll find transactions easier.

  • Learn some stretches.

This one was a massive benefit to me. I stretched at every rest stop and every evening when I finished walking. I imagine some people thought I did it to look sporty but I didn’t care: stretching stopped me from seizing up and getting injured. I did every yoga pose and physiotherapy pose I could think of – hamstrings, calf muscles, shoulders, and hips. Highly recommended.

  • Don’t compare yourself to others.

The camino is all sorts of things all at once but it’s not always what you expect, want, or were told it would be. There were times I walked a happy 6km per hour and times I walked a depressed 2km per hour. Both times, I did my best. My “best” was something that changed every day.

I compared myself to others and berated myself for being slow, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed.

Turns out, lots of other people were slow, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed, too – go figure!

It’s easy to find people who are having more fun, who are more fit, or who have more money for pampering treats. There is always someone faster and there is always someone slower – literally, as well as figuratively. Comparing yourself to others is a lose-lose situation – one that’s best avoided.

Next time I walk, I want to get my footwear and foot care sorted in advance. I should have worn my customized insoles and spared myself the agonizing tendonitis and swollen ligaments. Next time, getting that stuff organized in advance is number one on my list of preparations (ideally with a foot specialist who understands long distance hiking or running).

After that, I’d plan my rest days in advance and book private rooms with crisp, clean sheets and luxurious hot baths. I didn’t do that enough last time round…I know better for next time!

But what about you? How did you prepare for camino or how would you prepare? What points would you add? What points do you disagree with? And do you think it’s possible to prepare at all?

Pamplona to Puente la Reina

Distance walked: 24.1km  25.2km

Waking up in Pamplona, my room was still dark and I could hear the sound of light rain spitting against the window. Surprisingly, I was awake before my alarm sounded, and even more surprisingly, I was ready to go walking. I probably could have stayed in my private “B” until 10-11am but the thought never crossed my mind. Already, I had adapted to the daily routine of Camino – getting up early (without question) and going for a very long walk. It was quite a change from my lifelong habit of clutching the warm bedcovers for another five minutes.

The arrival of rain meant that the morning was a bit chilly but I had only one pair of long hiking pants in my possession and no rain pants to wear over them. If I walked in my hiking pants by day and they got wet, then I would have no dry clothing to change into later that evening. It was a luxury I couldn’t afford, so I put on my shorts – pretending it was a sunny morning – and braced myself for the worst. The goose bumps and shivering motivated me to move quickly 🙂

Outside, the streets were quiet and the sky was heavy with rain as I made my way out of the city. My map from the tourist office clearly directed me across the lanes of traffic, past early-morning coffee shops, and children on their way to school. Occasionally, a yellow arrow would appear, spray-painted onto a random wall or signpost and I knew I was going in the right direction. The footpaths were marked with scallop shell symbols and again, I knew I was on the route towards Santiago, and not towards the nearest IKEA store!

Many people think that walking the Camino means spending endless hours in the countryside on gravel trails, with big horizons, and blue skies. Walking Camino also means walking through towns and cities with concrete footpaths, loud traffic, graffiti, and general pedestrians going about their ‘real life’ business. Many people told me had gotten lost in Pamplona, and spent up to two hours going around in circles, trying to find the way out. In the early morning light, they found it frustrating and disheartening, and they felt the passing of time without the passing of kilometres. I understand how it can happen. Even after only a couple of days walking, we had become familiar with the country setting and having just one path ahead. In a city, there are countless roadways, footpaths, and alleyways to navigate – it’s easy to get disorientated and spend time cursing the map. That morning, I was thankful to find my way out of town easily and was even more delighted when it stopped raining.

A year later, I have to admit that I don’t remember all of the sights between Pamplona and Puente la Reina. I wish I did, but honestly, there were long stretches of Camino that I just experienced, without mentally recording them. I walked on my own, I didn’t wear earphones, and I didn’t consult my guidebook, so now, some of the place names are entirely unfamiliar and I have no memory of ever passing through.

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What I do remember though, are these small events because they shaped my day:

Stopping at the side of the trail to look at a tree festooned with ribbons, photos, and holy medals…We weren’t quite sure what we were looking at until we got closer and saw that it was a memorial to someone who had died while walking the Camino. I’m sure that like us, they set off walking full of hope and great intention, and never expected to die on the way to Santiago. I’m no theologian and I don’t know the ‘rules’ of Camino very well, but I still hope that their pilgrimage brought them a sense of peace and joy before they died. And maybe some bonus points in getting into heaven.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few of these sites along the way – some of them with small headstones or wooden crosses. Some of them are decades old while others have been there only a few months. They’re a sober reminder that any of us could befall the same fate – sometimes all it takes is some unsteady ground for us to lose our balance, trip, and bang our head.

Mental note to self: take care on downward slopes and loose ground.

I think this is the first memorial I saw on Camino and while we stood there, contemplating the precariousness of our own pilgrimage, a young American guy came along to join us. Is it relevant that he was American? Probably not, but I can’t call him by name so I have to call him something.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked

Oh, we’ve just stopped to have a look at this…

Without coming any closer to take a look at the memorial, he asked:

So, what is it, like a good luck thing or something?

Erm…no…it’s a memorial to someone who died while walking the Camino

Without missing a beat he replied:

Ah okay, I thought it was some special good-luck thing – thought I was ‘doing it wrong’ there for a minute

And without further pause, he was gone.

A year later, I still find this memory stunning. I was simply flabbergasted to witness his insensitivity and disinterest. I was even more rattled with his choice of language in our short exchange – this whole idea of “doing the Camino” (and doing it “right”) resurfaced, and I was quietly horrified. He would have come closer to the tree if we told him that tying a ribbon on its branches was a tradition for safe arrival in Santiago. He had no interest in pausing for a moment to reflect on the person who had died, and even less interest in speaking with us. Alas, this is the difference between “doing the Camino” as a physical challenge, and going on pilgrimage. I hate to say it but there is a distinction between those who treat it like one long-distance hike with cheap wine, and those who open themselves up to human connection and vulnerability.

How depressing.

I also remember sitting on a bench, eating a pack of chocolate biscuits, and watching the world go by. Two men approached, and though I’d never seen either of them before, one of them took a look at my hiking sandals and socks (a fashion disaster, I readily admit) and exclaimed:

‘You’re Ger!’

I am, but who are you and how do you know my name?

I’ve met Kevin and Liz – you know them, right? Great guys! They told me all about this girl who’s out here walking in hiking sandals instead of boots. They hadn’t seen you in a few days and they were hoping you were okay and that your feet were holding up. How are your feet holding up?

And so, we spent the next twenty minutes eating chocolate, catching up on people we knew, and talking about our feet – a beautifully normal day on Camino.

A bit of background:

Kevin and Liz are a couple I met on my first night at Orisson. We shared dinner and laughter, and the next morning we walked together up into the grassy Pyrenees full of horses and sheep. They were open, generous, and great fun, and I liked them a lot. I’d known them only a couple of hours but it felt like months’ worth of time in the ‘real world’.

The thing is, I met other great people on my first day of walking, shared a great connection with laughter and heart, and then never saw them again. Ever. Not once, in 6 weeks. I enjoyed Kevin & Liz immensely but wasn’t sure I’d ever see them again either, so to meet one of their new friends was a sweet surprise. I was thrilled to know that they were still holding up, and were somewhere within 1-2 days of walking from where I stood.

Walking the Camino is like one big high school reunion. The disadvantage is that sometimes you run into people you would happily never see again. They’re the ones who like to remind you of all the ways in which their life/pilgrimage is far more exciting/successful than yours. They’re a pain in the neck and you need to keep a wide berth from them. However, the great advantage of the high school reunion is bumping into people you haven’t seen in ages, sharing genuine warmth and kindness, catching up on the state of your feet/heart/spirit, and sharing a meal together. That stuff is wholegrain magic!

The second man also knew Kevin & Liz so we walked together to the top of Alto del Perdón (Hill of Forgiveness), through the windmills, and through the men who were out hunting wild boar. I’m not kidding when I say the wind carried the sound of gunshot and excited hunting dogs, and we reasoned it was best to move quickly and get out of there as soon as possible. This guy ran marathons (plural) for fun, so he was strong, fast, and fit. I walked as quickly as my little legs could carry me but I felt I was holding him back all the way to the top of the 790m hill. Still, he never once indicated that I was cramping his style and I appreciated that enormously.

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Alto del Perdón, featuring a wronght iron represntation of midieval pilgrims, heading westwards

He walked the Camino to raise funds for an Irish charity called Pieta House, and was averaging more than 40km each day with enough time to spend his afternoons drinking beer in the sunshine. When we got to the top of the hill, he bought me a coffee from another “banana man in a van” and within minutes, was gone. I needed to rest, he needed to walk, and we parted ways with a wave and a smile. I assumed I would see him again and wanted to sponsor him for his fundraising but I never saw him after that day.

While I rested at the top of the hill and took in the landscape below me, Kevin and Liz appeared from around the corner.

Yay!

What a great surprise, and what a sweet delight to be reunited.

Photos for everyone, and some great company for the remaining walk to Puente la Reina 🙂

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The Lovely Liz

“Doing the Camino”

I’ve debated whether to write this post but for a few minutes, I really want to explore the notion of “doing the Camino”. People say it all the time: “Oh, I’ve a friend who did that” or “Did you do the whole thing?” I’m trying to figure it out: what do we mean when we talk about doing the Camino?

I may be showing my age here but when I hear the phrase, I imagine Beavis and Butthead, sniggering and snorting, “Um…yeah…doing it…huh huh huh…” (That’s probably the first time that Beavis and Butthead have made it into a blog about the Camino de Santiago 🙂

I probably used the phrase myself before I packed my bag and went to Spain, but on my second day of walking, I met a woman who’s use of the phrase really challenged my thinking. She and I met in Roncesvalles, sitting in a restaurant with probably 70+ other people. We’d never met each other before, so we passed the next two hours eating fried fish and chips, drinking wine, and making small talk with the six other women at our table. For what it’s worth, the fish and chips were truly delicious, smothered in grease and salt.

This particular woman struck me as a real go-getter: ambitious, outgoing, and an achiever in life. She had travelled extensively to offbeat places like the Galápagos Islands. I found her stories interesting until she said things like:

“I’ve done South America. I’ve done Asia. Last year I did Kilimanjaro: now I’m doing Camino. After I finish Camino I’m doing the New York marathon.”

Or maybe it was Boston.

But you get the idea: everything was already “done” or on the “to do” list. And ideally, in quick succession.

Over time, I felt uneasy listening to her because her list was extensive. She had lots of stories and factual information, but had very little to say about how these things made her feel or had influenced her life. I wasn’t looking for a big Oprah revelation (or maybe I was) but it just seemed she had done all of these things and not reflected on any of them.

Had a trip to the Galápagos Islands been a childhood dream come true, for instance?

How did it feel at the top of Kilimanjaro?

Had these experiences changed her in any way or made her life richer?

I hadn’t a clue.

She had done lots of impressive and awesome things, but the way she listed them off made them sound trivial. I didn’t want to challenge who she was in the world, but internally, I found myself challenging her choice of language.

What is this fascination with “doing” all the time? Is it a western preoccupation? Do we have a fear of idleness? Maybe a fear of our own mortality? Is it a way of padding the job applications to demonstrate just how fabulous and qualified we all are, all the time? Maybe it’s a way of standing out in a world full of seven billion people?

There was something about her story telling that made me think of this:

Consuming, without engaging.

It’s like eating a meal without letting the taste of the food register in your mouth.

Consuming the experience, the travel, the mountain, the pilgrimage, whatever, without engaging with it or reflecting on it in any great detail. Consuming it, without even noticing it. Consuming it without acknowledging how magical it is to be alive at all, and in a position to experience such wondrous treats.

You know those books that list off 5,000 places to see before you die? Well, it felt like she was making her way through that list with great efficiency but with very little joy or wonder.

Galápagos Islands? Check!

Camino? Check!

Lived, died, dead, and buried? Check, check, check, check!

 

I really didn’t know, but I could imagine the rest of her script looking something like this: “I did Camino. I did the New York marathon. I did the old age thing. I did life.”

By all means “do the dishes” or “do the laundry” but don’t “do Asia” or “do Kilimanjaro”.

Save a bit of space for feeling delight or awe now and then. Please.

 

I reflected on her words for weeks afterwards. Do, do…done, did, did…everything sounded like a check box item, neatly ticked. Trying to equate this with Camino was unsettling because I met hundreds of people “doing it” in different ways.

For instance: I walked 800km between France and Spain, but I met a guy who walked from Prague. That’s right: he started walking six months before I did so by the time we met, he’d already crossed through the Czech Republic, Germany, France, and then Spain. Could you equate our walk in any way? Was he “doing the Camino” better than me, or more fully than me because he walked further, for longer? Compared to him, was I even “doing it” at all?

Were the mass-going Catholics “doing it” better? Were the people who walked only 100km from Sarria “doing the Camino”? What about the people who walked for a week at a time now and then – were they “doing the Camino” for just a week, or for years?

I met people walking and cycling. I had a group of people go by me on horseback. I heard of a guy who was “doing it” on a unicycle. One day, I saw two people on quad bikes! Were we all “doing” the same Camino?

Personally, I wanted to walk the Camino for more than ten years. I knew I wanted to walk westwards from the French side of the Pyrenees for 800km, alone, carrying all my belongings on my back, and in one full run. I didn’t want to do a week at a time or make do with a shorter version. Don’t ask me why but that was always my aspiration, and with the exception of two short and unplanned taxi trips, I “did” the Camino as I had hoped. I was very happy about fulfilling the dream with its detailed specifications. But in all my time walking, I met hundreds of people who were experiencing the same route in different ways. I couldn’t figure out who was “doing it” properly or truly, or how we would ever calculate that measurement to begin with.

So the only thing I could come up with was to change my choice of language. I stopped talking about “doing the Camino” and instead, talked about “walking the Camino”. I expect most people don’t notice the difference and don’t care either way but for me, my change of language marked a change in my thinking. That dinner in Roncesvalles, so early in the whole journey, reminded me of why I was there. I didn’t want to consume without engaging: I wanted to be open to the experience and even be changed by it. I wanted it to touch my heart. I wanted it to fill me with feelings of delight and awe. I wanted to live it and celebrate it, not just do it.

So, in all my writing and rambling, I’m aiming to keep that phrase to a minimum. It’s not my phrase and it’s not my preference, and I really need to explain my distinct reasons for rejecting it.

Phew.

So glad I got that off my mind, it’s been rattling around in there for quite a while!

That’s my thinking on the matter, but what’s yours? When you think of “doing the Camino”, what do you think of?

Camino Challenge: Go forwards or go backwards?

Waking up in Zabaldika, I had a few decisions to make for the day ahead.

Even though I’d walked on my own a lot of the time, keeping company with dozens of people and following their schedule wasn’t working for me. I needed to minimise the pressure I felt in the race for beds. I’d started pretty well but if I were to continue, I needed to recalibrate. I needed to find a new way of being on Camino and to follow my own rhythm.

At the same time, I kept thinking of the 10-12km that the taxi had covered the previous evening: should I get a taxi back to Zubiri and pick up where I left off? Was I “cheating” if I didn’t walk every inch of the trail on my own two feet? I really didn’t know. I was surprised to feel so sore after the steep descent from the Pyrenees and knew that if I insisted on walking 22-23km that day, I was going to be slow. That was going to put me in the same position I’d known the previous day, and I’d be right back to square one.

It was clear that my fellow pilgrims had no intention of getting a taxi back to Zubiri to pick up those missing kilometres. They were delighted to be closer to Pamplona, and were excited about arriving into town early enough to secure a bed and enjoy some tapas. They relished the thought of extra time in such a colourful city.

Chatting to them, I realised I had all sorts of conflicts about how I wanted to walk the Camino. I didn’t feel a need for self-flagellation but I wasn’t sure that taking a taxi to cover some of the trip was entirely wholesome. Were we lesser pilgrims if we availed of transport and creature comforts? Weren’t we missing out on some greater, metaphysical learning experience if we took the “easy option” instead of walking on foot? I wasn’t sure.

For thousands of years, people walked the Camino without access to the comforts we know today –no taxis, no private B&Bs, and no minibus service to carry the bags. Many people think that these modern services pollute the very essence of Camino. They think that people who avail of these conveniences are (negatively) interfering with the ethos or the true way to “do the Camino”. (I deeply object to that very phrase, but I’ll go into that at some other time!). So, I met lots of people who had strong opinions about the pilgrims availing of taxis and buses, and who didn’t carry their bags on their own backs. Personally, I felt it was important to walk on my own merit and carry my own bag, and in an ideal scenario everyone else would do the same. I liked the idea of a level playing field (so to speak) and that we would all be equally humbled in our journey across Spain. That said, I wanted to be diplomatic and restrict my judgement of others because I realised this:

Pilgrims from medieval days didn’t have taxis and minibuses, but they also didn’t have daily hot showers or café con leches. I didn’t hear anyone complaining about these comforts. I also didn’t hear anyone propose that these modern conveniences were interfering with the ethos of Camino. It’s funny, that!

It’s easy to judge the person who’s having their bag carried on a bus but for all we know, that person could have cancer in their upper spine and be physically incapable of shouldering the weight. I met a woman who was in that very situation. So what would we propose – that she shouldn’t have had a bag, and be denied a change of clothing and toiletries? Or would we propose she shouldn’t be on Camino at all, but instead sit at home and let cancer eat her insides until she died? I knew nothing of her life but thought she was entirely generous to walk 800km when she was so unwell. That was a Camino within a Camino. There was nothing about her choice to have her bag carried that was “wrong” or “less than” my choice: it was just different and it was appropriate for her circumstances.

Judging her would have made it impossible for us to become friends. Judging her would have kept us apart, feeling defensive and self-righteous about our respective lives and experiences. Judging her would have created a very anti-Christian sentiment while we both walked the same route towards the same destination.

I don’t know what “true Camino” is but I’m pretty sure that’s not it.

So, for all my idealism about levelling the playing field, I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about the people around me, the lives they lived, the struggles they’d known, or the reasons they were walking. Personally, I was glad of the hot showers and the hot coffees along the way, and I was equally glad of the taxi that had saved me in Zubiri the previous evening. Had it interfered with the ethos of Camino? Not really, because it had brought me to a place of kindness and support that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. It had also enabled me to feel vulnerable, humble, and deeply grateful. I imagine those feelings are part of the Camino spirit.

So, I made a conscious decision that morning: Accept the help I’d been offered and use it to keep going forward, not back.

The walk to Pamplona was only 8-10km and I did it slowly, with definite plans for when I arrived. I would use the city’s services to my benefit, and I would take some space to take better care of myself. I wanted to find a post office so I could post home some of the things in my backpack that were weighing me down. I wanted a private room so I could sleep in peace. I wanted a private bathroom so I could take my time without feeling the impatience of 50 people outside the door, waiting for their turn. The city offered me all of these possibilities and I was delighted to have access to it so soon. I arrived into town at the unprecedented hour of 11am and followed street signs to the central tourist office, where the staff kindly helped me find a cheap, single room in a B&B.

The previous day had been tough but this one was going to be better: I decided to Make it So.